Kenneth L. Carder is a bishop in the United Methodist church in Nashville, TN.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, Sept. 24-Oct. 1, 1997 p.831, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
The Bible contains more warnings about the dangers of wealth than about the pitfalls of poverty.
The perils of poverty are well documented. Malnutrition and starvation kill 35,000 children every day. Forty million people die every year from poverty’s perils -- the lack of food, shelter, health, education and hope. The poor are vilified and robbed of their dignity and self-esteem.
Riches have their perils as well. A rich man asked Jesus what he could do to have authentic life. Accustomed to paying the necessary price to achieve his goals, he assumed that he could attain or purchase the quality of life taught and lived by Jesus. To him, life was an achievement, a prize to win, a commodity to be bought. That is a familiar affirmation of faith. It is the rich man’s creed. It is our society’s dominant creed.
The Bible contains more warnings about the dangers of wealth than about the pitfalls of poverty. Jesus declared, "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom." Even if one allows for hyperbole, that is still a stark assessment of wealth’s perils.
One peril is a false sense of security, self-assurance and self-sufficiency. Abundant resources almost inevitably lead to the assumption that whatever needs to be done, we can do it. Whatever we need, we can supply it. With enough money or education or ability or goodness we will be able to secure our own future. With larger barns or investments, we will be able to relax. We will be somebody.
But self-sufficiency and self-produced security cut us off from grace. Life becomes an achievement earned or a commodity purchased rather than a gift gratefully received and shared. God becomes unnecessary, or becomes simply another commodity to be used for personal ends. Resources become intertwined with identity. We become what we own, know or produce. Riches become gods, and the foundation of our identity and security.
In his book God the Economist, M. Douglas Meeks contends that in North America we all live by the logic of the market. Value is determined by exchange in the marketplace. Everything becomes a commodity to be used and depleted, hoarded or cast away.
When persons are valued for their exchange in the marketplace, insecurity and competitiveness result. If our worth is based on what we know or own or achieve, we are always going to be insecure, for our value will depend on that which is precarious and temporary. Instead of loving one another, sharing with one another, nurturing the well-being of one another, we compete with one another, use one another, abuse one another and discard one another.
The rich man had put his life together that way. Treating life as grace -- as a gift to be given away, a gift available without price threatened the essence of his being. So he turned away. After all, if it is all a gift, there is no entitlement. Sharing, passing on to others, humility and thanksgiving replace hoarding, self-sufficient arrogance and smug pride.
The disciple asked, "Who, then, can be saved?" Jesus answered, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible." Life is a gift to be humbly and joyfully received, not a commodity to be purchased or a prize to be earned.
It is hard for the prosperous to enter the new life God offers because riches create more options. Priorities change. If security and worth are rooted in our achievements and our resources, achieving more and maintaining and increasing resources become our driving motivation. We can’t let up. We can’t relax. We can’t give sacrificially. To do so threatens our security and sense of worth.
Wealth becomes addictive. Luxuries become necessities. As one who remembers life without indoor plumbing, television, computers, telephones, VCRs and microwaves, I know how easily things once considered luxuries of the few become necessities for the masses. Yet in terms of the world’s population, such luxuries-turned-necessities are available to only an affluent few. Satisfying our appetite for more has devastating consequences for those who have less. It depletes their resources and relegates them to life’s margins.
Riches separate us from those who are impoverished. A gulf develops between the rich and the poor. Our wealth makes it possible to avoid them, to keep them out of sight and out of mind. We demonize and neglect those "outside the gates." This is the natural consequence of the logic of exchange as the foundation of worth and value: if worth is based upon what one has or knows or achieves, those who have little by society’s standards become worthless and expendable, objects of scorn, neglect and abuse.
The Bible is clear: We cannot know the God of Jesus Christ apart from relationships with the poor and the powerless. God has chosen the poor, the least, the most vulnerable, those whom the world considers "the weak" as special friends.
A distinguishing characteristic of the God of the Hebrew scriptures is that Yahweh hears the cries of the poor and defends the orphans and widows and immigrants. God chooses the slaves, the nobodies, as means of divine liberation and salvation. In Jesus Christ, God comes in vulnerability and poverty.
God’s special friendship with the poor is not a rejection of the rich, but an affirmation that life is not in riches. Life is in God’s grace. It is this grace that gives us identity and worth.